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Any parents still fearful that their children will start participating in drive-bys because of gangsta rap haven’t been to a Cypress Hill concert. The people frisking fans for cameras or weapons at the rap group’s two sold-out shows at the 9:30 Club served as a reminder of hiphop’s violent stigma, but the threat of violence seemed pretty remote; the only signs of gang activity on either night came in the form of Greek letters. When the crowd chanted along to lyrics like “sawed-off shotgun, hand on the pump,” it was doing so in the same spirit of release that fans a generation before did when they sang about rock ’n’ rolling all night with Kiss—the suggestion of gunplay just adds juice to the charge.
Even if any of these kids had access to weapons, they’d probably be too stoned to find them; ever since Cypress and Dr. Dre exposed their love of the herb to the masses in the early ’90s, gangsta’s cocktail of choice has been the blunt. “I can tell we’re all gonna catch a good contact right now,” noted nasal frontman B-Real during Hill’s first show, observing that a good portion of the audience had sparked up joints on his cue. Not that Cypress Hill was in any short supply of weed: Smoking pot onstage was all it took for the band to ignite roars of stoner solidarity. To watch the red-eyed crowd succumb to Cypress Hill’s thunderbeats is to see that the band is no more dangerous than Bob Marley or fellow NORML poster boys the Black Crowes.
Now that Cypress Hill has gone platinum three times—1991’s eponymous debut, ’93’s Black Sunday, and Cypress III: Temples of Boom, released late last year—it has become easy to dismiss bong-session staples like “Stoned Is the Way of the Walk” or “I Wanna Get High” as mindless pothead fodder. But Cypress Hill brings a lot more to the party than dime bags.
When the band’s debut exploded, the ethnically mixed trio’s model of racial division and unity was then unparalleled in hiphop: B-Real is of Mexican decent, his deep-voiced sidekick, Sen Dog, was born in Cuba, and DJ Muggs is Italian-American. With “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” Real and Sen Dog brilliantly stressed the human toll exacted by street savagery, at once harnessing the adrenaline of murder and acknowledging that killing on a whim is one thing most people “just can’t understand.” The bottom-line premise was that the three, despite their varied cultural backgrounds, had in common a relationship with fury that they were going to explain but not share. The members of Cypress Hill confronted the difference between “us” and “them,” but never abandoned the notion that they might be able to connect with their audience on other levels. When B-Real raps about death and doom, it’s because it’s what he knows and what is expected; when he raps about taking “hits from the bong,” he’s exploiting an experience that “us” and “them” can share.
Now that gangsta rhetoric has reached beyond even skateboard and dorm cultures (yes, that’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard rapping with Mariah Carey), producer DJ Muggs keeps Cypress Hill from sounding redundant. Besides Dre, Muggs is gangsta’s most accomplished mixologist: The loops of disjointed funk beats, police sirens, and arcane pop-cultural snippets from Hill’s first album have proved as influential to the genre as N.W.A.’s early experiments with sonic scare tactics. While Real and Dog’s raps have struck a rut of the familiar nihilistic/hedonistic themes, Muggs has continued to form new musical shapes: On Sunday, he trimmed the mix down to its metallic frame; on III, he reimagines dub as an atmosphere of noise and fear.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Hill’s taut weaves of bass-heavy sound were reproduced in all their glory—a rarity for live hiphop. The addition of a live percussionist underscored the band’s Latin flavor, and frequent bongo/conga breaks opened the gates for the band to improv. But even though it hardly affected the music’s force, the fact that Muggs was absent because of a production commitment and that Sen Dog had left the group to “take a different path in life” soured both concerts. It’s inarguable that B-Real and his Donald Duck-gone-loco flow is Cypress Hill’s main attraction. But for a band that has always thrived on divisiveness, cruising on the star power of one member runs counter to their cause. For B-Real to acknowledge his partners’ absence only in passing is a betrayal of the respect that he preaches.
The Pharcyde doesn’t have any stars, just four dudes too busy grappling with their own maturity to boast about anything but their rhyming skills. Opening for Cypress Hill (the soulless funk-metal band 311 played second both nights), the Pharcyde provided a counterpoint to gangsta’s macho shtick that made some of B-Real’s hard-ass poses seem like self-parodies.
In its 45-minute set on Wednesday, the Pharcyde was forced to cut most of the skit-play out of the songs from ’92’s Bizarre Ride II and last year’s Labcabincalifornia. But the group still had an impressive effect. That most people in the audience wouldn’t be able to pick MCs Imani, Slim Kid Tre, Bootie Brown, or Fat Lip out in a crowd didn’t seem to matter once they started pouring on the liquid grooves: After all, they’re pot smokers, too.
But the bond forged by the Pharcyde has less to do with partying than it does with confronting the conflicts of adulthood. While rappers from LL Cool J to Big Daddy Kane to KRS-One have sustained careers trying to prove that they can still kick the shit the way they did when they were 19, the members of the Pharcyde are eager to become men without having to prove it by shamelessly copping to hiphop’s phallocentric protocol.
What keeps the Pharcyde’s brand of positivism from slipping into the preachy righteousness of Arrested Development is that the group insists on developing one step at a time. While the ’cyders urge people to avoid the urge to follow anything but their own instincts with raps like “you gotta get on up offa that bullshit, stop fighting that feeling,” they own up to their own failings. On california’s “Runnin,” Fat Lip raps about the reasons why he “went out like a punk” and vows to get past it. And perhaps to mitigate some of the sexist banter on Bizarre Ride, on “She Said” the group rhymes about love and parental responsibility with all the pride with which others rap about their dicks and guns.
Like anyone still catching the thrill of blunts and hiphop, the Pharcyde knows that most of its communicative power is in the beats. The group spread excitement with crazed grafts of jazz noodlings, disco breaks, and funkified humor—a thick and intelligent enough mix that you’d hope one day they might be able to afford a band. But in the mechanized world of hiphop, the most daring thing that the ’cyders suggest is to “kick something that means something.” To paraphrase their soul brothers in De La Soul: If you’ve got the balls to be complicated, fuck being hard. Be real.CP